October 20, 2014

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Sunflower field in Avon raises awareness, funds for pediatric brain cancer research

The field of sunflowers on the north side of Interstate 90 between Route 83 and Nagel Road shines in the afternoon sun. The flowers were planted by the group Prayers from Maria. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

The field of sunflowers on the north side of Interstate 90 between Route 83 and Nagel Road shines in the afternoon sun. The flowers were planted by the group Prayers from Maria. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

AVON — Seeds of hope have blossomed into flowers of inspiration.

More than 250,000 sunflower seeds were planted along Interstate 90 in June to raise awareness of a form of children’s brain cancer and to remember a local girl who lost the battle to the disease in 2007.

Maria McNamara, of Avon Lake, was just 6 years old when she was diagnosed with a diffused intrinsic pontine glioma, a terminal brain tumor which took her life within a year.

Even though Maria’s type of tumor, or glioma, is the second highest cause of cancer among young people, there was very little funding for research and no cure.

After Maria’s death, her parents, Ed and Megan McNamara, started the Prayers from Maria Children’s Glioma Cancer Research Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, prayers frommaria.org, the foundation has raised nearly $500,000 for research. Its mission is to fund research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cures for childhood brain tumors known as gliomas.

After a foundation billboard with the message “Planting Hope for children with brain tumors” was erected, and seeds were planted in June, the field remained bare for several months. But thousands upon thousands of flowers recently bloomed on the seven-acre garden, which stretches a mile between Jaycox and Nagel roads.

Rachael Stalzer, the foundation’s executive director, said the seeds were timed to bloom for National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.

Stalzer said sunflowers, the foundation’s symbol, were chosen because they turn toward the sun. Just like the flower, the foundation hopes research for children’s brain cancer turns toward the light and progresses to include a cure.

The organization’s name pays tribute to Maria, who Stalzer said would pray every night for other children she met while she was at St. Jude’s Hospital.

“We can’t save Maria, who is not with us,” Stalzer said. “But her prayers inspired the foundation to try to support and improve more targeted treatments for children diagnosed with brain cancer.”

Ed McNamara said 4 percent of available government funding goes toward children’s brain cancer research. He hopes the sunflowers motivate people to change this, so one day families will no longer experience what his has.

“It’s upsetting and it’s frustrating, but we can never give up hope,” he said. “We can just do the best we can.”

Avon Mayor Bryan Jensen, who met the McNamaras during a recent trip to the sunflower garden, said the site is spectacular, emotional and powerful.

“The McNamaras have taken a tragedy and turned it into not only a way to honor their daughter, but all those affected by brain cancer,” he said.

People are flocking to the area to take it in. North Ridgeville resident Rudy Biser, a Vietnam veteran battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, walked in the garden Wednesday.

“It’s really beautiful,” Biser said. “I walked through the flowers just thinking about the little girl.”

Rudy Biser, of North Ridgeville, who has just finished his rounds of chemotherapy, walks through the field of sunflowers.

Rudy Biser, of North Ridgeville, who has just finished his rounds of chemotherapy, walks through the field of sunflowers.

Biser, who underwent chemotherapy shortly after Christmas, said his latest tests showed no signs of cancer, but he still needs more treatment. He said being among the flowers, and thinking about Maria, reminded him of other children with cancer he has encountered on his own journey.

Initially diagnosed in December, Biser started treatment at the University Hospitals Siedman Cancer Center in Cleveland, and he would occasionally see children facing the same uncertainties he does.

He drew strength from them, just like he drew strength from the flowers.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and when I was diagnosed I figured I could take whatever they throw at me,” Biser said. “Then I saw the kids once in a while, and I knew if they could take it, I could take it.”

Avon farmer John Betzel planted the seeds, donated by the Zurich Co., of Independence, on land he leases through Jacobs Real Estate Services. Jacobs Real Estate Services executive vice president James Eppele said his company didn’t think twice when approached about using the land.

“We are proud to play a small part in such a worthy cause,” Eppele said.

Betzel, whose father battled colon cancer, said he couldn’t be happier he was asked to plant the sunflowers.

“I have children and grandchildren,” Betzel said. “(Cancer) could happen to anybody. It’s very inspiring to see how many people stop down there. Every day people are there from sun-up to sundown.”

Barbie Chapin, of Olmsted Falls, said she learned of Prayers from Maria through another Avon Lake family who know the McNamaras, and whose child also died from a brain tumor.

“It’s breathtaking,” Chapin said. “You can’t prepare yourself for how it feels to see it, and it’s for a great cause. There is not enough money for pediatric brain cancer research.”

And if laughter is the best medicine, the Avon sunflowers are an equally potent elixir. Fairview Park resident Judy Allen said there is no way to walk among the flowers and not be affected in a positive way.

“It’s just amazing,” she said. “You can’t help but smile.”

The sunflower garden, off Jaycox Road parallel to I-90, has an entrance near the intersection of Chester and Jaycox roads. The Prayers from Maria Children’s Glioma Cancer Research Foundation invites the public to join them at the garden 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday for a kick-off to National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

For more information, visit prayers frommaria.org.

Contact Jon Wysochanski at 329-7123 or jwysochanski@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonWysochanski.